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To call a sketch of English authorship between 1660 and 1780 a history of Eighteenth Century Literature is, on the face of it, to be guilty of a misnomer. Eighteenth Century Literature should include everything between the death of Dryden and the birth of Sir Henry Taylor, and nothing else. At the same time, no other name has occurred to us by which, without confusion or affectation, those literary developments might be concisely described which came to their climax in the early part of the eighteenth century, and seem to be related to what we are in the habit of considering the characteristic features of that age in social, intellectual, and artistic matters. To call this the Augustan period would be to narrow it most unduly; to call it the classical period would be to introduce a series of ideas incongruous as well as inexact. No newly discovered nickname would please all readers at this time of day, and we must be content with a title so patently imperfect as that which we have chosen. The dates on the title-page may at least guard the writer against any misconception of the purpose which he set before himself to fulfil.
In dealing with a section of literary history which has been mapped out so minutely as the greater part of Eighteenth Century Literature, the first problem which presents itself to a critic in attempting to form a general survey of the whole, is that of proportion. The vast landmarks of the preceding century, the colossal Shakespeares and Bacons and Miltons, are absent here; the general level of merit is much higher, while the solitary altitudes are more numerous but considerably less commanding. The first and by far the most arduous duty of the writer was to make a rough plan of his work, selecting and excluding names, determining the relative value of each, and deciding what proportion of the space at his command could be spared for the individual figures. This was done with very great care, and it was when this skeleton was being filled up that the necessity of such a plan became obvious. It was then that the attraction of those fascinating minor figures in which the eighteenth century was so singularly rich made itself felt. It was difficult indeed to pass such names as those of Temple and Arbuthnot and Anstey without loitering longer in their company than the proportions of the plan permitted. But to keep to the plan the writer conceived to be the central feature of his work, and he forced himself to resist the temptation. For the relative prominence given to the various names, therefore, he must take the responsibility, and the critical taste of the reader will decide whether, in the main, the proportions are correctly designed. But those who have made special fragments of the century, or special figures in it, their main study, will recollect, if they glance into these pages, that the first